If there’s one thing student journalists have no shortage of, it’s ambition. You only need to chat to them for about 30 seconds before they mention hopes and dreams of working at a national newspaper or travelling the world as a foreign reporter. It is the driving force of all great journalists, and it’s great to see it in abundance amongst aspiring writers.
However, we sometimes forget that the glamour of national bylines often masks a culture of journalism that pushes many young trainees out of the field and into PR. Last week I read an article on Press Gazette about the “ripping culture” at a national newspaper website which has led to half its graduate trainees abandoning journalism for PR. Having worked in a national newsroom, albeit only on work experience, I have witnessed some of this first hand. It can be incredibly disheartening as it’s not what you are taught being a journalist is all about. Gone is the chance to find fresh stories and speak to people, and instead time is spent scouring the internet for stories that can be reworked to get website hits and Facebook shares. Whilst the chance may still be there for senior staff writers, there are less opportunities for trainees to experience on the ground reporting.
So why do we glamourise national newsrooms and turn up our noses at local papers? Perhaps I’m biased (after all, I work at a small local paper), but the opportunities and chances I’ve been given in a local setting have made me a better journalist, and I’ve only been here two months.
Local journalism offers more on-the-ground experience than a national newsroom. You have to leave the office and find the story – from death knocks (haven’t done one yet, but have been told it’s a rite of passage) to reporting on the newest addition to the Isle of Wight Zoo. In many ways it is more practical and offers more scope to learn the vital skills that you will need for the rest of your career. Going straight from an NCTJ (which is your standard entry level journalism qualification) to starting in a national newsroom may throw you in at the deep end.
Let’s be honest, when you take those first baby steps in journalism, you’re probably not going to be very good (I speak from experience). Your copy will be rubbish, you’ll forget to include crucial details and will probably confuse basic geographic landmarks. You’ll get the style wrong (percent, pc or per cent?) and some days it will feel like basic press release rewrites are impossible.
But that’s okay, we’ve all been there. If you’re lucky, you’ll get an editor who is kind to you when they tell you to rip it apart and start again. This might be just me but I’d rather make those mistakes at the IW County Press than at the Guardian.
Secondly, in a local newsroom you are more likely to find support to improve than you will in a national. Editors and senior reporters have the time to show you how to write properly and introduce you to the style guide – or even just show you how to work the phones. Last week I accompanied a senior reporter to learn how to cover carnivals. I know what you’re thinking – how difficult can that be? Yet, it turned out there was a deluge of particular information that was needed to get the story right and families buying the paper. Would I have got that training at the Independent? The risk of getting lost in a vast national newsroom makes this level of support all the more unlikely.
It’s time to stop being snobby about working on a local level. Kate Adie began as a station assistant at Radio Durham and Laura Kuenssberg worked for a cable TV channel in Glasgow before being snatched up by the BBC. Ambition is great, but in all likelihood the chances of walking straight from a university paper into a staff writer job at a national is slim, to none. And would you want to anyway?
A few weeks ago I was moaning to a much wiser local hack than I about the deluge of charity stories I had written that day. Geri, in her no nonsense manner, reminded me that even though these stories may seem trivial when we are writing them, they matter to the people who read and buy the paper. Later that day, a woman emailed me thanking me for an article I had written about the local Brownie group looking for volunteers – at the time I hadn’t thought much of it – and she told me since my article had been published 18 volunteers had stepped forward, saving the local guiding group from closure.
Sure, it won’t be my Pulitzer prize-winning moment, but I had made a difference and someone was grateful for the words I had put down onto paper – and surely that is why we become journalists in the first place? Covering local council meetings and speaking to people who’ve run races for charity or baked cakes for their local church embeds you in the local community. Getting an email the morning after a print run from someone thanking you for telling their story and being their champion – that’s what makes this the best job in the world.
The road to national newsrooms is paved by local journalists, and the reason the local to national path is so well trodden, is because it works, and it is the way so many great journalists cut their teeth in the industry. So aim for nationals, the BBC, the moon if you must – but don’t be disappointed if you have to work on a local paper to get there first.
A few weeks ago I emailed an editor at the New York Times for advice (another rule: network, network, network). He told me: “Almost every reporter now at The Times began at a town or regional paper just like you, and then worked their way up. This is both a trade and a professional, and it is important to learn the skills and pay your dues with diligence, hard work and devotion.
“Truly there is no place worth going in journalism that you can reach via a short-cut.”